When I was in high school, we moved to the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, which had a long-term companion relationship with the Episcopal Church of Sudan. The Anglican province and the country of Sudan have both since been divided into two provinces and countries: Sudan and South Sudan. Sudan had been ravaged by a devastating civil war since the early 1980s. During that time in Southwestern Virginia, I had the privilege to meet many Sudanese Christians. Their stories of war and exile had a deep and profound impact upon my faith.
Today we commemorate the Martyrs of the Sudans who were steadfast in their faith amidst persecution and devastation. Villages were destroyed. People were exiled or killed. And yet they persevered, full of faith in Jesus Christ. When threatened with death, they did not abandon the confession of their faith. They are a modern example of that old expression that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Christianity exploded from 5% to 85% of the population of South Sudan. My recollection is that when Southwestern Virginia started its companion relationship, there were four dioceses in the one province. There are now 63 dioceses in two provinces.
Southwestern Virginia had a missionary to Sudan at the time, a man named Marc Nikkel. Of his time in Sudan, he once wrote:
While there is no question that some refraction of the Christ is to be met in every human community, every society, every culture, it seemed as if these ‘small incarnations’ were an almost daily occurrence during my years in Sudan. There was no encounter, no event, which did not possess its spiritual dimension, revealing something of the presence and nature of God.**
Small incarnations. I love that expression. Even in the midst of devastation, pain, and death, there is Christ incarnate. It may be small in contrast to the enormity of everything else, but Christ is there. Marc’s theology here reminds me of Matthew 25. I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was in prison and you visited me.
For this time, perhaps it is, “I was in a pandemic and you did not visit.” For it is in maintaining physical distance that we can save lives. Sometimes this is even harder than the invitation to visit. We are social creatures and we long to be together. And we cannot. We must bear this time.
And yet, although this pandemic has disrupted our lives, it has not disrupted our ministry. We are still Christ’s body in the world, so we must continue to manifest Christ incarnate. It just looks different right now. Like so many parishes, we continue to worship together at my parish, we simply adjusted by putting it online. We have been able to continue to feed the hungry, we simply adjusted how since we couldn’t gather 300 of our hungry neighbors in our parish hall anymore.
The pandemic has even opened an opportunity to engage in practices that I have long wanted to engage. I have wanted to be more actively involved in my children’s education. Now I have to be! And that includes my children’s faith education and formation. For the first time in my life, I get to sit in the pew (aka our couch) next to them week after week to worship God. Then we all go to Sunday School together on Zoom and we grow in our faith together. It is a small incarnation.
God is truly present.
** Marc Nikkel, Why Haven’t You Left? Letters from the Sudan, ed. Grant LeMarquand (New York: Church Publishing, 2006), 79-80.
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